Navigating the virtual realm
Dawit Birhanu is the chief executive officer of Websprix, an IT solutions and services provider. The company is the first licensed private internet service provider in the country. The company that he manages has also acquired a place inside the headquarters of Ethio Telecom for local web hosting services. A former instructor of ICT at the then Faculty of Technology of Addis Ababa University, much of his professional life has been with Cisco, an American IT and networking company. Dawit has sat with Brook Abdu of The Reporter to discuss web services and the newly introduced local web hosting and private internet service provision his company embarked on. Excerpts:
The Reporter: Let us begin by introducing Websprix, how did the company come into being and what does its activities look like?
Dawit Berhanu: Websprix was established in 2011 after the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology (MoCIT) allowed virtual internet service providing companies in the country. Then we set up our tools here.
But, the Virtual Internet Service Providers that the Ministry allowed to operate did not begin soon. It is just recently that we got the green light to do the real job. Hence, until we fully started, we started working on other projects among which one was value added services (VAS) like SMS and voice broadcasting services for business clients.
So, we eventually became the first company for the voice service and the first and only company to provide comprehensive SMS services product.
For these services, we have 100 telephone lines from Ethio Telecom and a VPN service for the VAS. We also have a portal on which our customers can upload their text as well as voice messages and sent them to their existing or newly added users in the database. That is how out VAS service works.
Then we started with enterprises in the country, especially large financial institutions on designs and solutions for inter branch connectivity in the institutions. What we do is, these institutions have DSL connectivity that they get through Ethio Telecom and if that fails, the connections will be disrupted. To avoid that we introduced backup mobile connectivity for them and it automatically switches between the ADSL (Asymmetric digital subscriber line) and the mobile broadband when there is the need. The data across these two is also encrypted to make sure that the processed information is secured.
We expanded these services to datacenter and LAN connectivity. We delivered one of our hyper converged state-of-the-art datacenter for the Bank of Abyssinia which we delivered in seven months including setting up new facility for the data center and disaster recovery capability.
We also worked with MoCIT and Ethio Telecom to begin web hosting in Ethiopia. Completing our deal with the two, it has been eight months since we set up our servers at the headquarters of Ethio Telecom. We now provide hosting and cloud services with servers based in Addis Ababa.
One of the cloud services that we provide is the Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) for small and medium businesses. Our customers do not necessarily have to have hardware as they can use our cloud ERP. The difference is, the resource planning solution we provide is customized to the local needs including the country’s customs and taxation core.
We also work with broadcasters to help live stream their programs. The advantage of providing this service here is that, the distance that the signal travels is diminished enhancing the user experience as it won’t suffer from the international gateway congestion.
While doing this, we pushed for the VISP service to begin and finally, we have signed an agreement with Ethio Telecom to provide internet service. We have imported all the equipment for this purpose. We will do the last lap taking the networks from Ethio Telecom and deploy our fiber infrastructure to reach homes, apartments as well as business centers. That should start in the next few weeks as Ethio Telecom is reviewing the final site survey we would work on.
What does your agreement with Ethio Telecom look like for the internet services provision?
We will buy internet gateway capacity from Ethio Telecom and use their backbone to interconnect our sites to our hub site at Ethio Telecom’s HQs. We will then choose service locations and use Ethio Telecom’s backbone and connect the sites.
From these sites, we will deploy fiber to houses and buildings according to their demands.
We will also deliver end user equipment that will be placed inside the customers’ places and they will use whatever capacity they want measured by megabytes per second.
Does this mean that people can have internet connectivity without going to Ethio Telecom?
Yes, Ethio Telecom will continue to provide the service, but if they come to us demanding the connectivity, we will provide them with the necessary services. As we are also planning to introduce IP TV on top of that, people will get their TV through cables. This will avoid the drawbacks of using satellites.
Let us discuss the cost aspects of the internet services you said you are embarking on. How will your services be compared to Ethio Telecom’s charges?
The price is going to be competitive and it will be 30-40 percent lower than what Ethio Telecom costs. There will actually be service charges.
We are also building support center here for customer service provision and we have all the back end preparation that will allow us to provide these services. It will be whole integrated customer service including email and phone call supports.
You have been in the market for the past five years. Walk us through these years; what does your growth look like?
Although our company was established mainly for the VISP, we have been engaged in different activities. The startup capital was 500,000 birr and the registered capital has now grown to five million now. We are now planning to extend that to six million in the coming six months. It is growing fast and the number of employees we have has grown exponentially. We began with five employees and we are 17 now. By next month, this number will grow to 25 to help us deliver the required services for the VISP.
We want to emphasize on engineering. What we have noticed is that most of the datacenters in the country are extremely over engineered although we witnessed under engineering in some cases. This is wastage of money and low performance.
We focus on right sizing as technology is not like any other areas as values of infrastructure depreciate faster. Buildings get higher prices through time but when it comes to technology; a new and much valuable technology today loses its value within a short period of time. New technology with higher performance and lower cost come.
We engineer with a focus on right sizing and scalability of the technology when the time comes.
You mentioned that you also provide hosting services. There are also other companies that provide hosting services in the country. What have you been doing in regards to hosting services?
We are the only private hosting company located in the country other than Ethio Telecom. Most of them even buy from somebody else and sell it.
When webs are hosted on servers near the user, the distance the signal needs to travel before reaching the end user is longer; hence, perceivably affecting the user experience. That has a lot of latency in addition to the problems from the international gateway.
The other is we provide a complete set of hosting services.
One of the benefits of having local hosts for webs is that people can pay for their services in local currency as the payments for hosts outside of the country require payment in foreign currency. This is said to have a spillover effect on the growth of more local contents. What do you say regarding this and how will your presence here help have more local contents?
Hosting webs on local companies with servers installed locally has two main benefits. The first one is that they can settle their payments in local currency which is a lot easier to access compared to foreign currency. It is easier to do business. The other is that, as the hosts are near the customers, they can quickly and easily get help when they encounter any kind of problems.
The speed of connectivity is much better when websites are hosted locally.
We are capacitating ourselves frequently and we provide support in local time zone and in local language.
One of the reasons people don’t host their sites with Ethio Telecom is the need for privacy and to keep their personal details away from the government. How far will you go to protect the privacy of your customers that host their sites with you?
There are a couple of issues regarding that. There might be comments that come regarding the webpage hosted with us. Say, they got compromised or their sites have been used for attack, it is obvious that complains will come to us.
Then we have to follow the proper legal procedures from such things from happening to protect both our customers and others using their sites and services.
Tell me about yourself and how you came up with the idea of establishing Websprix?
I graduated from the then Addis Ababa University Faculty of Technology and I also taught there. When I was there, I went to The Netherlands to study electronic engineering. I also taught at the School of Information Science for Africa.
From there, I went to the US for a PhD program and eventually dropped the idea of a PhD and joined Cisco subsequently pursuing another master’s program in telecommunications.
I worked for Cisco for 16 years in which I was in the services providers’ team. I was responsible for developing products working as a lead technical marketing engineer.
I have also authored a book on service providers’ technologies, especially for Cisco specific technology.
I also participated in presenting on different topics at the North American Network Operators group.
That is the link for the establishment of Websprix.
What is the vision of Websprix?
Our main objective is to introduce new technologies and new ideas. We also envision expanding broadband internet access in the country.
Currently Ethiopia actually has a very good internal backbone both metro and the national backbone from the perspective of the main infrastructure element that is fiber. There are extensive networks of fiber both underground and on poles.
The remaining thing in this is to reach to the end user and delivering lots of local contents as there is limited number of local contents. We want to bring the capability of working from home or from any other place using this backbone too.